Rome: Explore St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, a Magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site

by | Sep 1, 2016 | Europe, Italy, Rome St Peter's Basilica, St Peter's Basilica in Rome | 4 comments

This is the view from the top of the Spanish Steps


Last week, I told you about my morning excursion to see three countries in one view through the keyhole in the door to the Villa owned by the Order of Malta. In keeping with that theme, I climbed 135 stairs to the top of the Spanish Steps in the afternoon.

The view from the top of the steps is, once again, three countries!

The red flag in the foreground marks the headquarters for the Order of Malta. The Order’s Magistral Palace, near the base of the Spanish Steps, is on the most upscale shopping street in Rome, the Via Condotti. The Palace and the keyhole Villa both enjoy sovereign status.

The dome in the distance is St.Peter’s Basilica, the heart of Vatican City, which also enjoys sovereign status. The Vatican is the smallest state in the world in both area and population.

It is extraordinary to stand in the middle of Rome, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and have a view of three countries: Italy, the Order of Malta and Vatican City.

I would have taken a picture of the Spanish Steps but they are mostly closed off for restoration. Bulgari, a luxury jewellery brand, donated 1.5 million euros for the restoration. Its flagship store in on the Via Condotti with a clear view of the stairs.

The restoration of the Spanish Steps was suppose to be finished by the spring, in time for the busy tourist season. However, that didn’t happen:

Bulgari’s €1.5m restoration of Rome’s Spanish Steps hit by delays

Economic woes and bureaucracy hold up work on city’s attraction, leaving it closed at height of tourist season

The Spanish Steps is one of Rome’s iconic landmarks, made famous by Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

The quote above is from an article in the Guardian. It has photos of the Steps and Audrey Hepburn.

Bob Dylan has a darker story about the Spanish Steps in “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

When I Paint My Masterpiece


Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble

Ancient footprints are everywhere

You can almost think that you’re seein’ double

On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs


Someday, everything is gonna be diff’rent When I paint my masterpiece

After seeing St. Peter’s Basilica from two distinct vantages, it is time to go to St. Peter’s!

Our tour was due to meet at 4:00 pm and take the subway. We looked at a map and decided to walk instead. I’m so glad we did.

First, the walk was lovely. Second, we found the secret entrance to St. Peter’s with no line-up!


St. Peter’s Basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

This is a view of the Tiber River


We crossed the mighty Tiber to get to the Vatican.

The houseboat in this photo is the clubhouse for one of the Tiber’s many rowing clubs.

If you use snail-mail, you can have it postmarked in the Vatican Post Office


As Dorothy would say in the Wizard of Oz if she were to see the Vatican Post Office

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Italy anymore

Do you send postcards when you are on a trip?

The Vatican has its own army….no need for a navy

Would you join the Swiss Guard?


I would like this job. The made-to-measure uniforms are really pretty, especially the blue, red, orange and yellow ceremonial outfit. I also like the everyday blue outfit that this Swiss Guard is wearing. The job comes with room and board and a tax-free salary.

Here is the job description for the Swiss Guard:

Job Title: Soldier in the Swiss Guard

Job Description: Bodyguard for the Pope

Required Qualifications:

  • Single
  • Male
  • Catholic
  • Swiss citizenship
  • Between 19 and 30 years old
  • At least 5’8”
  • Completed basic training with the Swiss Armed Forces
  • Has a certificate of good conduct

I meet one required qualification: Catholic. I would have a bit of trouble with the basic training requirement….and I don’t think I would pass the ‘good conduct’ requirement.

How many grounds of discrimination can you find in the required qualifications to join the Swiss Guard?

I could challenge the discriminatory job qualifications in Canada. However, the Vatican is an independent state. It can set whatever rules it wants.

The outfits are great but the role is not just ceremonial. During the Sack of Rome in 1527, the force was almost wiped out when 147 guards were killed on the steps of St. Peter’s in a last stand battle, allowing the Pope to escape to safety.

In 1981, there was an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. Since then, a greater emphasis has been placed on training for unarmed and armed combat.

Conspiracy theories still swirl after the 1998 murder-suicide in the Vatican when a young guard murdered the newly named commander of the Force and his wife. You can read more in this New York TImes article.

We Skipped the line-up to get into St. Peter’s Basilica


We had to get through Checkpoint Charlie before we could enter the Basilica. There are long line-ups for this airport-style security check. My eagle-eyed sister spotted a sign for a separate entrance for pilgrims. There were no pilgrims in line. None at all. We decided that we met the definition of a pilgrim and went right through security.

Pope Francis named 2016 as an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. A jubilee year is normally called every 25 years. It is a time for catholics to seek mercy and forgiveness. Those who make the pilgrimage to Rome walk through special doors that are Holy Doors, as symbols of God’s mercy. The Holy Door is only opened in jubilee years.

This is an Extraordinary Jubilee because it is in addition to the normal 25-year cycle. The Vatican prepared for a crush of pilgrims by setting up extra security lines. There was no crush on the day we went.

The door in this photo is not the Holy Door. However, it is a magnificent door.

Have you ever seen such a huge door?


The Pietà by Michelangelo

The Pietà is on the right as you enter the Basilica. Michelangelo was 24 years old when he completed the sculpture. It was immediately recognized as a masterpiece:

It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh [Vasari]

Michelangelo sculpted a young and beautiful Mary, not a 50 year old mother who has just lost her son.

In 1964, the Vatican loaned the Pietà to the New York World’s Fair. People stood in line for hours to get on a conveyor belt that moved past the sculpture. No lingering allowed.

In 1972, a geologist attacked the sculpture with a geologist’s hammer. He struck 15 blows. He amputated Mary’s arm and nose. Many of the flying pieces of marble were stolen by onlookers. After a painstaking restoration, the Pietà was returned to the Basilica and placed behind bulletproof acrylic glass.

Shortly after completing the Pietà, Michelangelo returned to Florence where he then undertook his other greatest sculpture, David.

When we visited the Accademia in Florence to see David, our guide pointed out an incomplete sculpture that is attributed to Michelangelo. This is the next photo.


Is this sculpture by Michelangelo?

This is the Palestrina Pietà in the Accademia in Florence, attributed to Michelangelo.


Is this a Michelangelo?

This is the body of Pope John XXIII, affectionately known as the “Good Pope”


Pope John XXIII was elected as a caretaker pope at the age of 76. He surprised everyone by calling the Second Vatican Council to address relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world.

In 2013, Pope Francis declared Pope John XXIII a saint.

The body of Pope John XXII is one of only 3 popes that is on view in St. Peter’s Basilica.

I found it just a bit creepy to see this body.

St. Peter’s Basilica has a capacity of 60,000 people


Once you are inside St. Peter’s Basilica, the crowds are manageable. You can wait your turn to get the photos you want.

There were so few people in a side aisle that I lay on my back and took one of my favourite type of symmetrical shots, straight up into the cupola.

This is a shot from the back of the Basilica. It is a BIG church.


Many architectural plans were made, revised and abandoned for the Basilica.

When Michelangelo was 71, he was named as the architect to finish the plans.

Michelangelo did not live to see his finished dome that dominates the skyline of Rome.

This sculpture is the largest piece of bronze in the world


The massive bronze structure that stands above the altar was designed by Bernini. This is a baldacchino, or canopy, that marks Saint Peter’s tomb underneath.

The inscription inside the dome says:

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build  my church


I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven


The Dove of the Holy Spirit is the focal point of Bernini’s baldacchino


The throne of St. Peter is centred under a magnificent amber stained glass window.

Actually, the window is not made of glass but of alabaster, a naturally translucent stone.

The dove is six feet wide from wingtip to wingtip.

The white dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit.

There is so much more to say about St. Peter’s Basilica.

If you have already been to St. Peter’s, what made the greatest impression on you?


After two posts, this trip to Rome has been all about trips to two other countries, the Order of Malta and the Vatican.


Next week, it is time to see the rest of Rome.


Rose Ann MacGillivray

Rose Ann MacGillivray

World Heritage Traveller at
I love visiting World Heritage Sites, celebrating the world’s most fascinating places and cultures, and most of all, having fun on a trip. Join me on the road to fun and fascinating places. Thanks for reading – and remember to add your e-mail below for updates!
Rose Ann MacGillivray

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